For “Dunkirk” Christopher Nolan cast the puppy-eyed lead singer of One Direction, Harry Styles, as a British soldier during the famed 1940 evacuation. This is entirely appropriate. I say this because the British Army fought World War II with the ferocity of a boy band. I don’t understand why the British feel such a reflex to celebrate it.
Here’s a trip down the the pathway of British military performance in World War II: the British spent a month fighting in France, during which time they got whipped by a German army that was riding horses ten years earlier. They were saved on Dunkirk’s beach by an emergency fleet of fishing boats (and, truth be told, Hitler’s apparent shoulder shrug toward defeating England). Once home, they spent the next four years slow-dancing with their sweethearts to Vera Lynne, while their officers thought up ways to dodge the Germans. On D-Day, they stormed the easiest beaches. They spent the next several months slow-poking around France, preventing Patton from making a huge war-ending flanking maneuver. They failed to close the gap at Falaise, leaving a brave division of Poles to do the dying. When they finally aroused some fighting spirit, they went a bridge too far at Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands.
Essentially, the British army spent World War II moving from one fiasco to the next.
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Still, the British to this day are obsessed with the war. They have an aggravating way of acting like they won it. Because there are so many of them in Hollywood, we get a replenishing stream of movies about their how they rallied to beat the Nazis. Consider the films of just this decade: “The King’s Speech,” “The Imitation Game,” “Allied” and “Their Finest,” from earlier this year.
From an historical perspective, this is vexing. While the British were sitting home, the Russians were eating rats and fighting the Germans in the mud and snow. But I’m not sure even the Russians make movies about them. If my assessment of British military performance sounds harsh, those severe doubts were shared by contemporary British leadership, including at times Winston Churchill. But you’re not likely to hear that in the upcoming Churchill biopic “Darkest Hour.”
Wild plaudits have greeted Christopher Nolan’s technically-superb movie; I find myself admiring, impressed, but not in love. The film takes place on land (soldiers on the beach, dodging Nazi bombing raids), on air (Tom Hardy as a British fighter pilot dogfighting over the English Channel), and on sea (Mark Rylance, steering a small civilian boat to France). Each operates inside its own perspective and timeline. They overlap, but they are not always presented in a linear fashion. That’s a perfectly-just approach but it should add up to something, moments of brilliance or insight. A night-time scene can incongruously precede a daytime scene. But the two have to rhyme in some way. In “Dunkirk,” they achieve this only sometimes. Too often, it feels like trickery, through haphazard editing and storytelling.
Nolan shot the film with an IMAX lens onto throwback 70mm film. In its sixties heyday, that extra-widescreen film stock was used on visually-stunning epics like “Lawrence of Arabia” (this film is among those listed in our 100 Years of Must-See Films). In “Dunkirk,” the clarity and depth lures you into a realer than real experience, almost shocking, that digital simply does not provide. Especially brilliant, hypnotic, even, are the shots from Hardy’s cockpit out over the Channel. You feel like the camera lens is sucking up the whole world.
Nolan is often noted for having a fixation on Kubrick. This is mistaken. “Inception,” for instance, seems to owe its debts to Tarkovsky, reworked as an action film. But I bring up Kubrick to make this point about “Dunkirk” – this is the least talkative movie released by a major Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.) in forever. If someone put a stopwatch to it, it might rival “2001” in silences.
There’s a habit among film critics to treat real life/historical stories with greater importance. While I think well of “Dunkirk,” I prefer Nolan’s fictional landscapes: he gets to mold the world to the story, and they seem more loaded with ideas. While I wouldn’t call “Dunkirk” a beached movie–in fact, go see it–I don’t see it as flying so high.
Kevin Bowen is senior contributor to Screen Comment (@Kevin_Bowen).